Fort Mill Times

Cash is on the way for agritourism. But what about Lake Wylie and the Catawba River?

Amelia Solar, 3, is enchanted by the alpacas at Curtin Farm during the York County Ag + Art Tour last June. The York County Council is considering the purchase of a 1,900-acre property on the Catawba River for $21 million to develop as an agritourism and recreation site.
Amelia Solar, 3, is enchanted by the alpacas at Curtin Farm during the York County Ag + Art Tour last June. The York County Council is considering the purchase of a 1,900-acre property on the Catawba River for $21 million to develop as an agritourism and recreation site. Herald file photo

An agritourism site study got its cash. What that money means for Lake Wylie and Catawba River investments, isn’t so certain.

York County Council voted 4-3 recently to allocate $50,000 from hospitality tax funds to update a 2008 agritourism study. The move comes after the county hospitality tax advisory committee recommended three areas — agritourism, the lake and river in no particular order — where future investment would most benefit the county.

Council heard that pitch, but hasn’t adopted the recommendation.

“We have not studied these priorities,” Councilman Michael Johnson said at the Dec. 4 council meeting. “We have not looked at these priorities. We have not voted as a council to determine if we like those priorities.”

Johnson called it “improper” to approve the agritourism money now, without studying and voting on priority areas. And if the three advisory group recommendations are approved, the new money for agritourism and committee already set up to study it are “basically declaring a winner.”

“If you don’t believe it will declare the winner, I think that is naive,” Johnson said. “I think this will declare the winner because it will be the only one that gets studied.”

Councilman Chad Williams disagrees.

“I don’t look at it as picking a winner,” he said. “They’re ready to go and they’re a lot further ahead than the other two. This does not mean we can’t come back and study the other two.”

Williams said he would be concerned spending the agritourism money if it hadn’t come back as a top-three priority. An agritourism site has had several studies done, with the new money updating one from 2008. The last study had an indoor arena as a potential benefit, but now Rock Hill is building one. Council members who approved the money said it could show an agritourism site isn’t a good idea, or offer better ideas than the now outdated data.

“This (agritourism) committee has been around in one way or another longer than any of us have been on council,” Williams said. “And they’ve done three studies, and what they want to do is update the last one which I think makes a whole lot of sense.”

Chairman Britt Blackwell, often vocal about the sometimes territorial nature of council decisions, believes at least part of the reason an agritourism site wasn’t built before involved concerns of who might get what from it, and where. Blackwell said putting money toward agritourism doesn’t have to be a negative for Lake Wylie or the Catawba.

“This doesn’t have to be contentious,” he said. “This can be something very positive, and we move forward.”

Htax money

York County charges a 2 percent tax on food and drink in unincorporated areas. That money has to be used for projects promoting or generating tourism. Main drivers of the tax are the Carowinds corridor and Baxter areas of Fort Mill, and the restaurant-heavy S.C. 49 stretch of Lake Wylie. The tax generates more than $2 million annually.

Money built up in the account for several years, until in the past couple a wave of projects came in looking for funding. The county spent millions on a new park and separate outdoor aquatic center area in Lake Wylie, and ballfields built by the Fort Mill School District. Other projects — Catawba Park in Tega Cay, a movie studio on Catawba Indian Nation land, a Clover park, a baseball complex in western York County — came calling, but the account dwindled to a point where county leaders called for a hold on any more major capital projects.

As the funds started to grow again, so did ideas on creating prioritized investment areas.

“It’s very important that we look at all three,” said Councilwoman Allison Love, who like Johnson and Councilwoman Christi Cox favored a workshop to formalize the priorities instead of approving the agritourism money first. They were the three “no” votes on allocating the money.

“I’m for all three. I think agritourism is a great thing. I don’t know exactly what the definition of that looks like, visually. I don’t know what recreation for Lake Wylie looks like, visually, and I don’t know what the lower Catawba River looks like, visually.”

Which gets back to Johnson’s concern.

“I don’t know what Lake Wylie projects could look like,” he said. “I don’t know what Catawba (River) projects could look like. And unless some money is spent to help hash those out, I’m never going to find out what those look like. All I’m going to find out is what a $50,000 update to a study tells me should happen for agritourism.”

Council members haven’t expressed concerns with any of the priorities, including agritourism. The concerns involve timing.

“We’re not going to debate the other two because we don’t know anything about the other two,” Johnson said. “And you can’t debate what you don’t know anything about.”

Directed spending

S.C. Rep. Tommy Pope called Blackwell and asked about agritourism, saying it’s important to a large group of people in the county. Blackwell asked Pope if he’d be interested in chairing a committee to look at it. That group began meeting in August.

Several council members expressed concern agritourism has a committee making requests already, while the lake and river don’t. At a time when none of the three have been formally adopted as priorities. Love said if $50,000 is going to agritourism, the same amount should go to study each of the other two contending uses. She has concerns the county is “blindly looking at something because it came up a few years ago.”

“Just because you’ve been looking at something for a long time doesn’t make it the best thing,” Love said.

Cox agrees the potential uses ought to be studied jointly.

“I do think that we should have the same committee looking into these things,” she said. “I don’t think dividing this up and splitting it all up is going to be beneficial.”

Others say it’s more an issue of which priority is ready to be studied, not which is more worthy.

“This study may end up saying it’s not worth doing,” Blackwell said of the agritourism spending. “And then all of the energy is just to the other two options.”

Blackwell agreed his group needs to formalize spending areas, though it has “certainly spent a lot of money in Lake Wylie.” Without as much reservation, he said, as the much smaller agritourism money caused.

“We spent a million dollars on a swimming pool that we had no business spending Htax money for, to dry up the pot, and we went ahead and without reservation spent the money,” Blackwell said. “We spent money on a field with the school in Fort Mill. That’s not going to have any return on tourism. Yeah, I get it, it can maybe with tournaments help them out a little bit, but it’s going to be nominal.”

Love, who represents Lake Wylie, said capital projects funded to date shouldn’t impact how council spends hospitality tax money now.

“The lake and the area of Lake Wylie are two different things, so when you say we’ve spent a lot of money in Lake Wylie that’s not even part of the discussion,” she said.

Williams wants to see what people in the county want when it comes to hospitality tax spending, and meet those goals “as efficiently as possible.” Past studies have shown recreational amenities are a major desire in York County.

“There’s people in the county that want recreation, and some of them are willing to pay for it,” Williams said.

Which isn’t to say the county should start a full recreation department. Council members repeatedly stated in recent years they don’t want to do it, despite operating Ebenezer Park and funding projects like the sports park in Lake Wylie which, because a special tax district was set up to fund the rest of it, falls largely under county management decision-making.

“We’re looking more and more like a recreation department,” said Bill Shanahan, county manager.

Blackwell said the agritourism money shouldn’t get delayed because other parts of the county want something different, or because of disagreement on where an agritourism facility should be.

“I would just like to see us do things that are just good for the county,” he said. “I don’t care where it’s put or what district it’s in. I’d just like to see something good for the county, especially when it’s complementary to the cities and their tourism.”

And, Blackwell said, when it doesn’t stop the county from spending elsewhere.

“That’s not saying no, we can’t do anything in the Lake Wylie area,” he said. “That’s not saying, no, we can’t do anything in the Catawba (River) region.”